It’s Labour Day, which means for most a chance to rest and recreate, but in Riverside Park every year, it’s a chance for organized labour to stand in solidarity with their fellow union employees. This year, with a Federal election on the horizon, and the spectre of Provincial cutbacks, things were slightly more political than usual.
“I’m actually quite inspired when I look down the info fair, I see all of the unions out in full force, and not just with giveaways, they’re talking and engaging with people about what’s actually happening,” said Janice Folk-Dawson, the President of the Guelph and District Labour Council.
This year’s Labour Day Picnic takes place in the shadow of a pending Federal Election. Most of the candidates were in attendance, some even has tables at the info fair, and between the hot dogs, face painting, and classic labour ditties, there were topical conversations that previewed this fall’s campaign.
“I think this election is something that we definitely need to pay attention to,” said Folk-Dawson, who had a specific issue in mind.
“One of the main tents that we have is Unite Against Racism, and I think that people in Canada are concerned – and I know I’m quite concerned – about the rise of the right and how that is affecting our workforce and and what’s happening to labor,” Folk-Dawson explained.
The Unite Against Racism campaign was featured in the Toronto Star today. It started as a way to raise the issues of migrant workers and make them a priority in the Federal election. Of course, issues of migration and immigration have created a lot of hate speech and far-right extremism as seen in North America and parts of Europe.
“I am really hoping that people are paying attention that there’s an election coming up, and that the stakes are quite high, as we have to make sure that we have a Canada that the fabric is not changed fundamentally, because that’s what could happen with that rise of the right,” Folk-Dawson said.
Another new campaign is the Decent Work Project by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for the Elimination of Poverty. Brittany Skelton, who was manning the table, said that the project is about making sure everyone has fair work, for a fair wage, as well as safe working conditions.
“We know that when folks are paid a living wage, that the employees are actually happier, healthier, and more productive,” said Skelton. “It’s literally a win-win for employers, for employees, and also for your community because when folks have that economic boom, they’re able to support the local economy.”
“With the Federal Election, we’re just encouraging everyone from all parties to look at their platforms and ensure that they’re addressing this on the national level,” she added.
But provincial matters were also top of mind for labour workers, especially the teachers. Last week, the Canadian Union of Public Employees posted an open letter warning parents that there could be labour disruptions in Ontario’s public schools this fall. The provincial contract for all teachers and education workers expired on August 31.
“Every classroom teacher right now is holding their breath because we know we’re political pawns,” said Mark Berardine, president of the local chapter of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). “We’re not really being able to bargain as quick as we would like, because they [the Provincial government] don’t want us in the news right now.”
Berardine said that his colleagues are preparing for the worse.
“When you talk about service to the community, we have not been in a strike position since ’97,” he said. “We’ve avoided it and we worked hard to avoid of it. We always try to get the best deal for our members, but this government doesn’t care. All they care about is the bottom line. They want to defund public education, and they want to take away from our students.”
Can the teachers be dissuaded from strike action? “The first thing they could do is take away that ridiculous class average of 28,” Berardine said. “We all know 33, 34 is too many, so you want to talk averages, that’s fine, put a cap on it because a teacher is going to say that much more than 30 or 31, and they’re having a hard time making that 75 minutes go around. Let’s be realistic.”
A recent statement from the provincial Minister of Education didn’t offer much in the way of a negotiating starting point, but merely said that the government is ready to negotiate in good faith.
“Our government has continued its efforts to reach a deal and worked to expedite negotiations to drive an outcome before school starts that puts our students first,” said Stephen Lecce.
“Students will not face any disruptions to the start of their school year,” he added. “Beyond that, we will continue to negotiate in good faith, and call on all parties to work harder to reach a deal that supports the needs of students. Our kids deserve no less.”
Folk-Dawson had her own words of warning about the Provincial government. When asked about the biggest issue facing organized labour right now, she said it’s the Student Choice Initiative. The initiative allows students to opt out of funding student clubs and groups, including the student unions, which Folk-Dawson said is a test run for other kinds of union defunding.
“To me, this is a pilot project on removing unions from the Canadian fabric and that is something as Canadians we should all be very upset about,” she said.
Here’s what some of the other politicians at the picnic think is the biggest issue facing labour right now:
Phil Allt, Ward 3 Councillor
The biggest issue facing labor is actually the lack of organized workers because when you say “labour”, we’re talking about organized labor, and what’s happened as a consequence of that is that we’ve changed our assumptions about wage increases right around. The best example that I can give is the assumption that a minimum wages is a minimum wage, and that’s just not true. Many people believe a minimum wage is a maximum wage, and that’s why so many people in management industries are so opposed to raising it. Laboir has got a real challenge, and it has to be certain that it can organize more workers for what is, fundamentally, a democratic struggle for better working and living conditions.
Mike Schreiner, Guelph MPP
The biggest issue is government cuts to public services and attacks on the labour movement in general, and that’s one of the things I’m standing up and speaking out against at Queen’s Park.
Lloyd Longfield, Guelph MP and Liberal Party Candidate
We’ve been fighting for labour’s rights federally, we’ve changed legislation to make it easier for for people to organize, we’ve been working on undoing what [former Prime Minister Stephen] Harper did to attack labour, and now we see the same thing going on at the Provincial level. So we have to protect labour, we have to protect the safety and well-being of the workers in Canada and it’s good to be out here on Labor Day.
Juanita Burnett, Communist Party Candidate
A huge issue is recognizing the importance of the threat that the Student Choice Initiative poses. When they’re starting to choose whether or not to fund their student unions, it opens the door to stop automatic funding of their other unions and that’s a danger. We need our unions to be stronger now than ever.
Steve Dyck, Green Party Candidate
When I think about labour issues, it’s actually seniors, and I go to the [Canada Pension Plan]. My sense is that CPP is lined up to give us 25 per cent of an industrial wage. That’s that’s the target of our CPP, and I don’t see that actually working for for seniors. The cost of housing continues to climb really quickly and our wages aren’t keeping up, so the challenge of affordable housing for people who are on CPP, I’m not seeing that work.
Aisha Jahangir, NDP Candidate
The most important labor issue right now is about protecting, and not only protecting but also enhancing, our public services. So that means we need to ensure that public service workers rights are protected.
Paul Taylor, None of the Above Party Candidate
Today is everything. There’s nothing but problems for labor, because government is controlled by business. When we vote, we’re supposed to be able to have an ear on government, but now it’s not happening. Before I heard somebody said, Justin Trudeau can get the ear of any president of any business, but now, if I wanted to talk to the Prime Minister, that’s not possible.